The cells within the skin, which produce natural pigment, are called melanocytes. A collection of melanocytes appear on the skin surface as a mole (naevus or beauty spot). Malignant melanoma is a form of skin cancer, which affects those pigment-producing cells, and often appears as a new or changing mole. The cause is not fully understood, although repeated intermittent exposure to high-intensity sunshine is the major contributing factor.
Ultraviolet rays within sunlight are known to cause skin cancers. U.V.B. is responsible for burning the skin and is strongly associated with the development of Malignant Melanoma. UVA may also be associated with the formation of Malignant Melanomas.
The number of reported malignant melanomas has risen sharply in recent years and this form of skin cancer is a significant health problem in Britain today. There were 11,000 new cases of melanoma reported in 2007.
If treated whilst in the earliest stages of development, malignant melanoma can be cured. However, if left, this form of skin cancer may spread to other areas of the body (metastasise) when it may prove more difficult to cure.
It is vital that malignant melanoma is recognised and treated without delay. The white adult population is at risk of developing malignant melanoma, although those most vulnerable are the fairer skinned. Persons and families with many moles are also at greater risk. Malignant Melanoma is more common in women in the UK and frequently appears on the lower limbs, however, the incidences in men are increasing. The most common site for men is the back, although malignant melanoma can occur anywhere in the body.
Childhood sun exposure has now been identified as an important factor in the development of malignant melanoma in younger adults. Although most frequently seen in the 40-50 age group, there is a significant increase in the 20-40 age group.